THE SCOUT & THE CAVALRY Australian Producer Mark Opitz (Pt. 2)

We continue our conversation with the
famed studio whiz.

 

BY MARCUS BLAKE

 

Mark Opitz has been a mainstay of the
Australian music scene since the ‘70s, over the years working with everyone
from indigenous acts AC/DC, Cold Chisel and INXS to the likes of Bob Dylan,
Kiss and Ray Charles. Go here to read part one of our interview.

 

BLURT: Getting back to your days at
Warner Brothers, did you sign INXS?

 

MARK OPITZ: Well,
on the same night as my first day as head of A&R at Warner Brothers, I went
to see them play. I walked up to and spoke with Michael Browning, who was the
ex-manager of AC/DC, who they hated. In fact, in the Albert days, AC/DC had
their lawyers talk to his lawyers. That was the only way they would talk! He
was there. Chris Murphy, who was managing INXS, was there as well. At the start
of the gig, I went up to Chris and said to him, “Chris, I’m the head of A&R
and I want to sign INXS as my first signing.” He said, “You know what, Mark? You’re
a day too late. We already signed with Michael Browning on Deluxe Records.”

        INXS did two dud albums with Deluxe
Records. Well, they did, maybe, five or six thousand copies but nothing
spectacular. Then, they offered me the third album, which was called Shabooh Shoobah and I pulled another
five times platinum out of the hat for that one.

 

  That was massive here in America too.

 

  That was a breakthrough because we had “Don’t
Change” and “The One Thing”. And, later on, when MTV noticed it, it went
through the roof. All together, I did about five albums with them.

 

  Speaking of “Don’t Change”, that song has a
very distinctive, droning guitar sound. Could you tell me how you got that
guitar sound?

 

  I first heard that song at a gig. I used to
go to a lot of an act’s gigs before I worked with anyone just to absorb what
was going on and try to make sure I could capture what was needed.

        So, it was originally a straightforward
rock song. I sat down with Michael Hutchence one day to talk about the song. I
said, “Listen, there’s a song called “Union City Blue” by Blondie. I want you
to go and listen to it.” What happens in that, is that Deborah Harry sings
across the beat all the way through. She follows the beat and it gives it that
distinctive sound. I used that as the basis with the band for the feel of the
song.

        What happened with the guitar sound on
“Don’t Change” is that I layered the guitars up with Tim (Farriss) and Kirk
(Pengilly). But, I noticed when I was in the middle of mixing the song, there
was this harmony (starts singing “Don’t Change for me…”) at the very end. Originally,
that wasn’t there. When the guitars played back combined, there was this
harmonic melody that just popped up out of nowhere! Just because the guitars
were clashing!

 

  A happy accident!

 

  That’s it! A happy accident! So, I grabbed
Kirk while he was packing up his saxes and played him the mix that I had.  I told him, “I want you to sing that harmony
that became the “Don’t change for me” part.

        The other thing that happened with the
droning guitar sound is by putting a quarter note beat and an eighth note beat
with a bit of feedback on each side and burying it under the guitar sounds, you
get sort of a ping pong effect but in time so you can’t hear it. And then, I
stopped it by the last beat so you don’t hear the hangover. That harmonizes the
guitars. One side is slightly sharp and one side is slightly flat. That gave it
that sort of droney sound and that harmonic thing at the end, which I was able
to capitalize on.

 

  Do you have a favorite microphone that you
used to use with Michael Hutchence?

 

  There are a couple of great vocal microphones
that I like. In the studio, some singers work better in the control room. So,
what I like to do is put the big speakers on really loud and give them a SM 57
microphone to sing into.

 

  Wait a minute! You’re blowing my mind here.
So, is that what Bon Scott did? Did he record his vocals in the control room
instead of a vocal booth?

 

  With Bon, most of the time, I used a U 47 on
him.  But I recorded that way in the
control room with The Angels. For the first album I did with them, I put a
Sennheiser (noise cancelling microphone) up for Doc (Neeson, lead singer) and I
sat him in between massive speakers in George, Harry’s and my control room. I
put the speakers out of phase because I knew where the guitars were going to be
placed. So, it meant that whatever he sang would get in there but all of the
guitars that were put in the mix would cancel out the spill. So, I was able to
turn the speakers up real loud so he could get a rock feel. I did Rose Tattoo
and some INXS stuff that way as well sometimes. But I usually did stuff that
required more dynamics and sound with them. I wanted to set them up in a really
comfortable situation. Sometimes, I would actually sit out there with them and
talk to them at the end of takes and stuff like that. But the magic, as the
producer, Daniel Lanois, does, is that you’ve got to make everyone feel
comfortable. That’s why he’s one of my favorite producers.

 

  Funny you should mention that. Lanois is a
friend of mine and we sometimes perform live together.

 

  Were you out in Australia with him?

 

  I was with him in Australia a couple of years
ago, yes.

 

  What a bummer I didn’t get to meet you then. I
did see you guys play in Melbourne though. I didn’t have the intestinal
fortitude to go up to Daniel and say, “Hello, remember me?” because I first met
Daniel at Peter Gabriel’s studio in, maybe, the early ‘90s. He was upstairs
using Peter’s room and I was downstairs recording some German band. He came in
and said, “G’day, my name’s Daniel and feel free to come upstairs, play a
guitar, push a fader, whatever you like.” I thought, “What a cool dude.” I sort
of hung out with him a bit and went to a great Christmas party with him and
Peter Gabriel. We hired a nightclub in Bath, England called Mole’s and Aaron
Neville was there and we all got up on stage and got really shitfaced. We went
back to the studio afterwards to try to record and it went nowhere! (laughs)

        Anyway, when I heard his first solo
album, Acadie, I carried that album
with me for years and years. Every time I would go overseas, that was one of
the records I would take with me to remind me about purity and things like
that. Particularly, when you listen to a song like “The Maker”, that just blew
me away. I thought it had two basses on that but when I spoke to him about it,
he said that it had three! He’s a very inspirational guy and one of my favorite
record producers. Mark Howard is also a lovely man. They are both lovely
people. I would love to spend a lot more time with them and just be a fly on
the wall at their sessions. I’ve had that experience with Trevor Horn and a few
other people but to me, Daniel Lanois is pretty much the perfect record
producer.

 

  Yeah, it’s about feel or a vibe rather than a
“perfect take” with him.

 

  Exactly, and that’s what it’s about for me. It’s
always about feel. Sometimes, I’ve got to go for a perfect take because some
bands can’t play and, therefore, you have to use a click. But, overall, it’s totally
about feel for me. When I look for a band’s sound, when I have the time, that’s
what it’s about, the feel.  Make sure
that’s what comes out of the speakers. The old phrase is “capturing the
moment”. But, of course there are a lot of ways going about capturing the
moment.

        Anyway, Daniel is one of the guys who
keeps me going in doing what I do. Quincy Jones does.  Mutt Lange does. And, obviously, Vanda &
Young are a great inspiration to me.

        I like to be ready. I like to be ready
to record and capture everything. I don’t record demos. I don’t record singles.
I don’t record albums. I just record. I can’t tell you how many times that I
used a demo as a main track or used demo vocals because it’s got the feel.

        Daniel’s position in America allows him
to work on a lot of varied projects. He has a lot of choice. In my case,
because I live in Melbourne, I don’t have as many choices. Yeah, last year, I
spent three months in Istanbul for Sony, doing a great band over there, which I
love doing. I’ve been going all over and working on anything that gives me
inspiration, basically.

        As I said earlier in the interview, it
was all about being the best record producer in Australia. I wish I would have
said the world! (laughs) But, I went for Australia and I got lots and lots of
our version of the Grammys but, these days, my variants have really changed. It’s
just about making good music.

        If a band comes to me that I like and
they say, “Well, we can’t afford you.” I say, “What can you afford?” Then, they
will name this figure and I say, “I’ll tell you what, give me five percent more
and I’ll do it.” The reason I charge five percent more is that I know you’ll
try fucking hard. I know that’s the most you can afford but if you add that
little bit more, I’ll know you’ll try hard. That’s the way you build respect. It
gives me enjoyment as well because I’m passing on knowledge.

        Even to this day, I do master classes
as well.

 

  Could you tell me about these master classes?

 

  Well, I’ve done a few of them and it’s
basically about how I do things. I take my engineer up with me and we do Pro
Tools and stuff like that. But, it’s about how to capture those “happy
accidents” you mentioned before and how to record things like guitars. I have a
particular method that I use where I can guarantee that a guitar sound that you
hear coming out of your amplifier will sound exactly like how it will in the
control room. That might sound like a very hard thing to do to you. The average
person might think, “Why wouldn’t it?” But it doesn’t. My method revolves
around using a condenser microphone, a 57 at a 90 degree angle, crossing in
front of the speaker and, basically, getting this interlocking effect. Or, I
use a 414 AKG condenser microphone with a 57 or something similar.

        Also, I never eq anything when I
record. Maybe I use a bit of filtering, but I never use any eq. The way we
record these days is, after recording, we go into what I call “pre mix” as
opposed to “mix”. We spend a day on a track just filtering out any rogue sounds
and, most importantly, adjusting the phase of every instrument so there’s no
latency (delay) involved. It makes such a difference!

        I remember working with Kiss a few
years back on the symphony orchestra stuff (Kiss:
Symphony Alive IV
, the 2003 live album Kiss did with the Melbourne Symphony
Orchestra). It was a massive production. I wasn’t a fan of Kiss when they asked
me to do it. I have since become a fan of Gene (Simmons) and Paul (Stanley)
because of their attitudes. Anyway, we showed them about putting stuff in phase
correctly. Paul said to me, “You know what? Eddie Kramer is the luckiest man in
show business! He got away with murder!” (laughs) We did a lot of work in
Australia and then I worked on it in L.A. for about three months.  I was in the limo going to the airport and the
phone rings. It was Gene Simmons. Gene said, “Mark!” I said, “Yeah?” Gene said,
“If I ever go to jail, you’re coming with me.” I said, “Why is that, Gene?” He
said, “Because I know you’ll figure a way to get me out.” That’s one of the
biggest compliments I’ve ever received.

        Paul said to me one of the smartest
things I’ve ever heard someone say in the music business. One day, I asked
Paul, “Why did you take the makeup off?” He said to me, “So we could put it
back on.” I thought that was fucking genius. I said, “Oh, the Coca-Cola
principle?” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Do you remember in the early
‘90s when Coke changed their flavor?” He said, “Yeah, they did that on
purpose.” I said, “No, they didn’t.”

        Everyone thinks that Coke changed on
purpose but Pepsi was coming up from behind them. So, Coke changed their
flavor. They did this so: 1) Everyone could taste the new flavor and there
would be a sales boost, and 2) Everyone hated the new flavor and people, not
Coke, wanted them to bring back the old flavor. It was the same with Kiss, they
didn’t put the makeup back on until they had enough momentum of other people,
not them, saying, “Put the makeup back on! Put the makeup back on!” Of course,
when Kiss put the makeup back on…BOOM! They’ve always looked after their fans
more than anything. I thought that was one of the smartest things anyone had
ever said to me.

 

  You went on to work with Paul Stanley for his
solo album as well?

 

  Yeah, I did a bit of work with him on that
but it wasn’t what I call inspirational. I did a few things with him. I did the
Rock The Nation tour with Kiss as well, which was pretty cool. Having never
have seen Kiss and then, here I am, working with Kiss with an orchestra, with
David Campbell conducting. That brought on all sort of problems like Peter
Criss had carpal tunnel syndrome. He could hardly drum so I had to replace
every fucking drum. I also had to use lots of phase corrections. But I used to
ask the president of the Kiss fan club in Australia and in America how they
thought it sounded. “Oh! It sounds great!” I left all of the ad libs and coughs
in. Anything that you would notice during the show, I left in. In America, I spent
fifty-two days straight with no drinks or drugs for fourteen hours a day
working on that record. When I was in America, working on it, I had to take
over a lot of the TV production because the DVD director was putting all of
these shots from Dallas or from wherever with the music. I said, “What are you
doing? You can’t do that!” Music is king. So, I called a conference with their
manager, Doc McGhee, and I said that it was taking too long and we have got to
have a plan. This is how we’re going to do it. And, they went with it.

        I think that’s one of the reasons Gene
said what he said to me and Paul said something that I will never forget as
well. Not to boast, but as Paul was walking out of the control room, not
knowing I was behind him, he said to Doc McGhee, “That guy has the best ear
I’ve ever heard.” I thought, “How am I going to live up to this?!” I was
freaking the whole time I was doing the symphony thing. Am I going to be able
to pull this off? But the most important thing was to keep the fans happy. So,
I was on the Kiss Army fan site every day looking for little things about the
show that they remembered. I didn’t want to fool them. I just wanted them to
have the best product that they could possibly have. The way I use modern
technology is not to be hip and groovy but to re-capture the moment as much as
possible.

        One day, Paul was in the control room,
fixing some guitars and was looking at himself on the screen. He was playing
like shit. This was one of the first days of working together. I said, “Fuck
you, Stanley! If you want to fucking look at anything, look at fucking me and
play guitar!” He looked at me kind of shocked and absolutely nailed it because
nobody had ever spoken to him like that before.

 

  That’s what he needed!

 

  That’s why I think Gene and I got on really
well. In fact, when we were at Henson Studios in L.A., him and Paul would come
in at separate times. I remember when we first started doing vocals, I said to
Gene, “Do you want to hang around when Paul does his vocals?” Paul looks at
Gene with daggers and Gene looks at Paul like, “No fucking way!” And I said,
“Oh, maybe you better not hang around!” Paul would come in for lunch. They
wouldn’t even listen to the music because they trusted me. Gene would come in
at night and we would go off and have dinner. Gene is a very intelligent man. We
would talk about shit for hours. Even to the point where, years later, I would
be somewhere, like Turkey and I would get a phone call from him. We would have
this quiz thing going. So, Gene would ring me up and say, “Hey Mark, what is
Donovan, the folk singer’s, real last name?” I would say, “Leitch!” He would
go, “Aw, fuck, you knew it!”

         I’ve got to say, though I wasn’t a fan
of the band at first, I really like working with those guys. They own Ace
Frehley’s face. They own Peter Criss’ face. Gene Simmons owns the word, “Axe”
when you’re referring to a guitar. He has that trademarked. He owns the
moneybag symbol with the U.S. dollar sign on it! If he wanted to, he could sue
anyone for using that without his permission. You might not like what they do,
but they’re doing it and that’s valid. I think music is music. No matter what
form it comes in. It’s still the international language. It’s still the thing
that turns us on in different ways. And if American
Idol
is the only way that one can get noticed, so be it.

 

  You have also worked with another musical
giant, Bob Dylan, for his performance of “Things Have Changed” for the Academy
Awards, in which he won the coveted award. How did that come about?

 

  As you probably know, Bob Dylan was up for
the Best Song award for the 2001 Academy Awards. Bob decided that, if by chance
he might win the award, that the last place he wanted to be was in Los Angeles
at the Academy Awards! So, he decided to tour Australia at that time. He was
out here touring and Bob’s management rang me up from New York City and said,
“We’ve got to do this thing at the Academy Awards and we’re going to do it out
of a TV studio but we want a producer to make sure the music turns out properly
and to do a good service.” I said, “How much do I have to pay YOU to do this?” I
mean, I used to have a poster of him on my wall when I was fourteen. You know,
on his motorbike with the polka dot shirt on and with the Ray Bans.

        I felt the same way with Ray Charles
(Opitz produced the 1993 collaboration between Charles and INXS for their song,
“Please (You Got That)”.) They were my two biggest heroes. He was the best singer
in the world as far as I was concerned and Bob Dylan was the real Elvis
Presley. He should have had the accolades that Presley had.

        Anyway, Bob’s management asked me if I
would be interested and they were also going to fly out a director to make sure
the vision was right. So, I turned up and went to Bob’s show the night before
and met Dylan. I shook his hand and he had a kind of soft fish handshake. He’s
also a very private guy. Luckily, one of my good mates, Charlie Sexton, was in
Bob’s band so, I had that avenue to get in there to get inside of Bob’s head to
see what was needed and to see what was going on. I sat up front and watched
the show. I noticed what equipment they were using and asked the front of house
guy if I could borrow certain equipment for the Academy Awards the next day. I
knew an engineer that worked at the TV studio and I got him and the front of
house engineer to come along.

        Anyway, they had a guy fly out from
America to do the vision part of the performance. One of the things that was
stressed by Dylan’s management was, “We don’t want this to look like The Tonight Show! You know, like as if
he was on David Letterman or Johnny Carson. We want Bob to look like Bob.” So,
we do the rehearsal. I’m in my control room, which is next to the video control
room and the director has all of these swirly lights happening! It looks like
the fucking Tonight Show! I couldn’t
believe it! The song starts and the camera starts to pan across. So, Bob starts
to walk away from the microphone, still playing his Telecaster guitar and just
keeps singing. Of course, you can’t hear a word he’s singing. The director
yells, “Stop! Stop! Stop! You have to sing into the microphone, otherwise we
can’t hear you.” Bob goes, “Oh, okay, sure.” They do another take and the
camera starts to move again and Bob takes the mic out of the stand and starts
walking into the camera, not playing guitar this time. The director says,
“Stop! Stop! Stop! We can’t do it like that! You’ve got to be this way and that
way, etc.” I say to myself, “Director, go down to the floor and speak to him
personally. Do NOT speak to him through a floor manager. You MUST speak to this
man personally.” Well, of course, Bob just said, “That’s it! Fuck you! Fuck
your rehearsals. I’m not dealing with this fucking wanker. He fucking stinks. I’m
out of here. I’ll be back when we’re ready to do the show. Don’t you move one
fucking camera or I won’t do a fucking thing!”

        Luckily, I managed to capture the vocal
sound in the first couple of takes because I knew what we needed to do. I had a
Manley VoxBox. I had a nice LA-2A. I had the right microphones and all of that
so, I could soften his voice a little bit and still bring up the dynamics for a
beautiful song. After having a sandwich, I went back up into the control room
and discovered for the first time in history, the Academy Awards were running
early. So, I’m sitting there and I hear the squawk box go from the Dorothy
Chandler Pavilion, or wherever it was in L.A. say, “Okay, we’re ready to go
with Bob in five minutes!” Everyone thought we had a half an hour to go! So,
I’m thinking, “Holy shit! What’s going to happen now?” So, I sent my assistant
to go and round people up and everyone got on stage ready to do the performance
but there was no sign of Bob whatsoever. You could hear the people in America
working on the show say, “Okay, we’ll start a countdown, if you’re not ready by
the count of three, we’re going to cut to a photograph and just play the
original song recording.” Well, it got down to the five count and, all of a
sudden, this white face (Dylan) shows up and puts on his Fender Telecaster
guitar and it gets to: “three, two, one” and then, Bang! They go straight into
the song! It was fucking brilliant!

        My wife and Don Was were sitting in the
audience and they both rang me and said that it sounded great. Then,
afterwards, I went down to talk to Bob and then the Best Actor award was coming
up and Russell Crowe was nominated. He’s another New Zealander/Australian. We
waited to see if he won and he did and we all shook hands and I got another wet
fish handshake from Bob. It was definitely one of the highlights of my life to
work with him and talk to him about how to do the song.

        I love the style of production where
you trust each other. I’ve said a lot of times to bands that I work with, “I
only expect to work with you for two albums, three albums, tops. If I work with
you for three albums, my job should be that I’m in the back lounge, asleep
because you guys already know how to do everything. I’m showing you my craft. I’m
like the scout that has gone forward from the cavalry. It’s up to you, now, to
make the choices.”

 

***

 

I like to consider myself a new student
of Opitz’s. I may not have worked with him (yet) but the knowledge and attitude
towards music making that I learned from him will stay with me for my own music
making and writing. For every great story there’s a great experience. I’ve been
lucky enough to travel all over the world, playing music. Like I said, you never
know where the people who make good music come from…

 

For more info on Mark Opitz, go to: www.markopitz.com

 

To attend Mark Opitz’s production master class
go to:
http://www.studios301.com/sydney/markopitzmasterclass.htm

 

Author Marcus Blake
performs with Daniel Lanois, Mother Superior, Rollins Band and Pearl (just to
name a few); he additionally has a series of interviews with record producers
in Spanish magazine
Popular 1.
Contact him at the
Mother
Superior website.

 

 

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